Western Pennsylvania’s Surprises – Part 2

I know, I know–there has been a bit of a gap between Western Pennsylvania’s Part 1 and Part 2. That’s what happens when you follow a lazy blogger.

So, to review: my last post pointed out our mistaken belief that Fallingwater would be the only attraction the Ohiopyle area had to offer. Were WE ever wrong. Instead, we discovered multiple highlights, many of them located at the Nemacolin Resort.

If you have never heard of the Nemacolin resort, join the club. Neither had we. The Fallingwater website listed several area hotels, beds & breakfasts and inns. Because this trip was an anniversary celebration, a Ramada, Holiday Inn Express or Days Inn was not what we had in mind. Okay, the Nemacolin Woodlands Resort was a splurge, but was it ever worth it!

First some background information: The resort is privately owned by 96 year old Joseph Hardy III, who still has a home somewhere on its 2,000 acres. He leaves its day to day operation to his daughter Maggie, who also is the CEO of 84 Lumber, the source of Joe’s wealth. You can read all about Joe’s history in the lobby of the Lodge.

We stayed in The Lodge, one of several hotels on the property.

Well, not exactly ALL. You need to go to Wikipedia to learn that he had FIVE wives instead of the three the display fessed up to. His first marriage to Dorothy lasted more than 50 years, which means that from his 70’s until now, he made up for lost time by wedding 4 more lovely ladies. Three of his brides were in their 20’s, which made the 50 something woman he wed (wife #4) appear age appropriate. Unfortunately, THAT marriage went the way of the three before, and Joe’s last (possibly current?) Mrs. Hardy was under 30 when he married her. The display tells about his founding of 84 Lumber and its financial success, but somehow I find his marital history far more intriguing. Admit it, you probably do too.

Joe’s interest was not confined to women. He also was fond of classic cars, which are displayed in a “museum” on the property. Here are just a few of Joe’s toys. Notice the motorcycle? That is a replica of Peter Fonda’s wheels, built from parts of the motorcycles used in the movie “Easy Rider”. The Captain America helmet is perched on the back.

Right by the private airstrip is a hangar containing classic planes, including Steve McQueen’s, from a movie I didn’t see and don’t recall. Sorry. THAT museum was locked up, but if you have a burning desire to get up close and personal with those babies, you can call security from the phone helpfully placed by the entrance and they will let you in. We weren’t that curious, so the photo was shot through the window. I’m confident you get the idea.

Although there are many diversions to thrill children and teens, we didn’t partake in any of those.

Instead, we rode the “free” shuttle to the Frank Lloyd Wright “tribute” restaurant located in another hotel (each room at THIS hotel comes with your personal butler. If you are anything like me, you probably are wondering “what does the butler DO??? Hand you your slippers, floss your teeth? ). Lunch outside was lovely, but probably not worth the price.

The view from the outdoor restaurant

The walk back to our hotel, however was pretty delightful. In addition to stopping to visit the two museums, we enjoyed looking at the extensive sculpture collection scattered along the walkways.

My favorite thing, however, was our anniversary dinner. Pricy, yes, but very delicious and quite an elegant experience. Can you tell from the photos below which was the main course?

I chose the Wagu Beef, which is shown in the upper right hand corner. Makes one recall that commercial “where’s the beef”? Yes, I am old enough to remember both the original commercial and the political ad that used the phrase.

Enough about Nemacolin. I’m sure you’ve gotten the idea by now. ANOTHER big area attraction is Fort Necessity. I’m married to a man who never saw a fort that he didn’t love. Although this Fort Necessity isn’t very big, and is a replica of the original, the visitor’s center is fantastic.

I probably was taught this in either elementary or high school, but I had forgotten this fort was where George Washington started the French and Indian War. Here’s what happened: either the French or the British fired the first shot at Fort Necessity. The well done video makes it clear that each side claimed the other was the aggressor. What is important was the way the battle ended. The British had to surrender, and the terms were written in French, a language Washington didn’t understand. his translator wasn’t all that fluent either, and to make matters worse, it had been raining and the ink had run.

What Washington didn’t realize was that he had admitted to assassinating the French commander, and the rest is history.

One final note: if you are visiting the area, The Bittersweet Cafe is a great choice for breakfast. Don’t miss it!

Western Pennsylvania’s Surprises

Do you know where you find a section of the Berlin Wall, Peter Fonda’s motorcycle with Captain America helmet, Steve McQueen’s airplane, the Fort where the French and Indian War started, several Frank Lloyd Wright masterpieces, and a five diamond restaurant? Hint: check out the map above, specifically the Ohiopyle area. It doesn’t look like there is much in the area, does it? At least that’s what I thought till I got there.

Did you ever plan a trip, thinking that it would be all about a particular site, then discover that the area had a whole lot more to offer? Enough for two posts, even?

We were drawn to the area by a newspaper article I had clipped about Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater decades ago. It sat in my “Fun Things To Do” folder until earlier this year, when I figured we either needed to visit the damn place or throw out the clipping. If I had done the latter, you wouldn’t be reading this post.

A quick internet search uncovered a special Fallingwater experience–a sunset tour, lasting three hours, ending with appetizers on one of the decks. The tours are only offered on Friday and Saturday nights, are limited to 10 participants, allow interior photography, and include parts of the house not shown on the other tours. For $150 per person, you can pretend that you are a guest of the owners. Just our kind of gig.

The newspaper article included a photo similar to this one

So how was it, you ask? Well, the house was quite fascinating, especially given that it was completed in 1937. As you can see from the photo above, the house was built over a waterfall. When the windows are open, you can definitely HEAR that water falling! Closing the windows successfully shuts out most of the noise…and also the cooling breezes. Fallingwater, you see, is not air conditioned. Did they even HAVE AC back in the late ’30s?

You’re probably thinking “What’s the point of living over a waterfall if you can’t stick your 10 little piggies into it”? Right? Well, Frank was also thinking just that, so here’s what he did.

The stairway leading down to the water is pretty cool, but what is even more impressive is the way the glass panels slide away.

Do you think he accomplished his goal, which was to bring the outside in?

Here’s another example. You are out in the middle of nowhere, so window coverings are not needed, but in the bathroom, why not have planters built into the window to form a natural curtain?†

When we first entered the living room, it looked like the corner was completely open. It took a while to see what is obvious from the reflection on the window–that two panes of glass are joined in the corner.

Wright not only designed the building, he also created all the furniture throughout the house. I was surprised to see a king sized bed in the master bedroom. Our guide explained that it was actually two twins pushed together and united by a single headboard and bedspread, something TV in the 1950’s would never have shown. (It isn’t that visually interesting, so I didn’t bother posting a photo of it–everyone knows what a king sized bed looks like.) How surprising that it took about three decades for that great concept to catch on!

The kitchen, bedrooms and bathrooms are all very small. The focus is on the large living/dining room and the outside balconies. Check out the banquettes in the living room. Not what I consider the most comfortable seating, but maybe if you imbibe enough from those nearby bottles, you won’t notice.

At the other end of the living room is the dining area. Are you expecting the tour to turn left or right into the kitchen? Well, it doesn’t. The kitchen is a tiny space down a flight of stairs and through a very narrow hallway. The owners clearly didn’t spend much time there. That was the domain of the servants. There are no photos, because the kitchen was so tiny, I couldn’t figure out how to frame it.

I was quite happy that our appetizers were not served in the dining room; instead, we enjoyed our hummus, crackers, cheese and veggies on one of the decks.

A staff member was getting everything ready for us. You can see from that blue pole in the foreground of this photo that necessary repairs are being made on the building.

While enjoying our appetizers, one of the other guests strongly recommended that we visit another of Wright’s nearby buildings. Kentuck Knob was built about 20 years later, for friends who were frequent guests of the Kaufmann family, the owners of Fallingwater.

Okay, so I know this is heresy, but I actually liked Kentuck Knob BETTER than Fallingwater. It has all of the usual Wright features, but it just seems more LIVEABLE. Interestingly enough, it is considered “usonian” (Frank’s term for his “middle income” houses.) This “middle income’ house was built for the Hagans, the owners of the ice cream company in Uniontown PA, and was sold to its current owner, Lord Peter Palumbo, who, since 1996, when not using it as his vacation home, opens it to the public.

A photo of the Lord and Diana (wearing her “screw you, Charles” dress) appears in the house. I grabbed this from the internet

Take a look at the cutouts under the eaves. They are a source of light into the living room and supposedly repeat design elements found in the building. (I’m taking that on the guide’s word. I couldn’t spot any of those elements.)

Notice how the carports–Wright’s invention — are nestled into the landscape. The hill behind forms a partial roof.

Although we weren’t allowed to take photos INSIDE the house, there was no rule against shooting through the windows into the interior, which is what I did.

Now take a look at the role the cutouts play in the interior space.

The wall opposite the banquettes is all windows and glass doors, offering access to a walkway and a spectacular view of the valley below.

The price of your admission allows you to wander through Lord Palumbo’s spectacular sculpture meadow. I was particularly taken with the part of the Berlin Wall. His collection also includes three red British phone booths at the visitors center.

I’m tired of writing and you are probably tired of reading so the rest of the area attractions I promised in the first paragraph will have to wait until the next time I post.

Planning to Visit Yellowstone? Here Are Some Helpful Hints

Okay, first off, full disclosure.  We have only been to Yellowstone and the Tetons once, so I don’t pretend to be an authority, but having just gone through the experience, I don’t take for granted what more experienced National Parks travelers might.

Also, I am not, and never have been, a camper, not even in an RV, and don’t get me started on tents!  So, if after all that truth telling, you are still with me, here’s what we learned from OUR experience.

Tip #1 Researching your Trip
I discovered this wonderful brochure late in the planning process.  It has maps, showing  where the various lodging options are located, plus information about restaurants, park activities, and many, many other helpful hints.  Don’t be put off if you are traveling in 2019 and the 2018 brochure is the only one available.  Trust me. The information doesn’t change much from year to year.  Of course, the usual travel books are available at the library, but I found this brochure provided the information that I most needed in a brief and user friendly format.

And while you are at it, be sure to download the FREE Yellowstone App from whichever place you go to for your apps.  For me, it is the Apple store,  and on their site, the app looks like this.

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Once you get the app, go to “settings” (The little gear on the bottom of the screen), and choose “Download Offline Content”.  This is important because there are many areas within the park where internet access is nonexistent, but because YOU were smart enough to download, you can access the maps and important information about the sights that are nearby.

Tip #2 When to Book Your Stay
It is important to plan your trip WAY in advance, particularly if you want to stay inside the park during the summer months.  Reservations open in March for winter bookings; spring, summer and fall reservations are accepted starting May 1,  for the following year.  

We made our Yellowstone lodging reservations for May 25- 29 in early December.  I had mistakenly thought that by choosing a time when the season was just starting and while the kids were still in school, the competition for rooms would not be as keen.  Wrong!  If we had waited much longer, we would have been out of luck.  So who else was visiting Yellowstone at the start of the season?  While there, we heard German, Spanish, French, Chinese and Hindi being spoken, and saw buses from Australian and Chinese tour companies in the parking lots.  It was nice to see people from other parts of the world enjoying the beauty that this country has to offer.   Just don’t wait too long to book your hotel or cabin.

Be sure that you book through Xanterra, the official park concessionaire.  I mistakenly thought the company I found via my internet search, entitled US Park Lodging, was the vendor through which one made hotel reservations within the park.  Wrong.    I should have contacted Xanterra, and my mistake increased the cost of our lodging by 10%.  A non-refundable 10%.  And if we need to make changes to our reservation, we need to do so through Xanterra–NOT US Park Lodging.  So, YOU have now been warned.

Tip #3 Getting There
We flew into the Jackson Hole, Wyoming (JAC) airport, but other choices include Cody, Wyoming(COD),  Bozeman, Montana (BZN)  or Idaho Falls, Idaho (IDA).  Cody and Jackson are the closest — a little more than 50 miles from park entrances, while Bozeman and Idaho Falls are almost double that distance.

Although United airlines offered a non-stop flight to Bozeman, we opted for a connecting flight to Jackson.  The distance and the fact that we had never visited Jackson Hole or the Tetons were the deciding factors.

It took some playing around on the United Airlines website, but the difference in prices ($654 versus $1037 Round Trip) was worth the effort to determine which arrival and departure dates were the most economical and convenient.   (We did our airline reservations before our lodging reservations).

Of course there are some who choose to drive from home to the park, and we met a few of those adventurous souls!

Tip #4 Where to Stay
For our first two nights, we stayed at the Snake River Lodge and Spa in Teton Village, because we wanted to experience as much of what the area had to offer as possible during our first visit to Jackson Hole.

If you are a skier, this is the place to be because the ski lift is a brief stroll away.  If you are trying to save money, this is definitely NOT the place to stay.  On top of the not inexpensive room rate, the hotels in Teton Village charge resort fees and village sales taxes, in addition to the regular taxes charged.

On the plus side:  Because our son was staying with us, we opted for a suite, which was very nice, with bedroom, pull out couch and balcony.

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The view from our balcony at the Snake River Lodge.  Yes, we had a bit of rain during our stay.  

Still, we preferred Springhill Suites by Marriott, in Jackson Hole.  We stayed there for the last two nights of our trip.  It is only 15-20 minutes from the airport, it offers free a great free breakfast, you can walk to lots of wonderful restaurants in the “downtown” area, it also offers rooms with a couch (our couch had a trundle bed), and it was significantly less expensive (58% of the cost of Snake River Lodge).  Not only that, but it is right across the street from a FREE parking garage!

For our four days in Yellowstone, we decided to split our time between the northern and southern parts of this huge park– two nights at the Lake Hotel and two nights at Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel.   That worked out really well for us, because it allowed us to easily visit everything we wanted to see.

If you look at the map below, you’ll see that the roads in Yellowstone make two big loops.  yellowstone mapAs you would expect, the Lake Hotel is located across from Yellowstone Lake.  This very beautiful, peaceful property, was recently renovated. P1190626

It has all the amenities you would want: coffee and tea making paraphernalia in the room,  a hair dryer that is NOT attached to the wall, the bottles of goodies (shampoo, conditioner and body lotion.)  It also has a gift shop, a restaurant and a snack bar.

The hotels within the park all practice “sustainability”.  You can opt to forgo room service for a $5 per night credit to your room charge.  We decided to do that, and donate the savings to Yellowstone Forever.  I have to tell you, we really LIKED not having our room made up.  It was easy to make the bed (we do that at home) and hang up our towels–and we were guaranteed that the maid would not be cleaning our room when we wanted to return to it.

But more about the wonderful Lake Hotel:  The lounge is has a great view of the lake, and the piano music every night makes your before (and after) dinner drinks even more enjoyable.

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The hotel has lots of interesting architectural features, like this beautiful fireplace.  Be forewarned, though, this stay is not going to be a cheap.  Our two nights here were the most expensive of our trip.  If you are looking to conserve your vacation funds, choose a different option, but be sure to come here for dinner or lunch.

We also loved the Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel, but for different reasons.  This hotel had NOT been recently redone.  For example, the toilet seats are way lower than you might expect.  Be sure to LOOK before you sit!  There are no coffee or tea making supplies in the room, BUT there IS a hair dryer that is not attached to the wall.  (Can you tell I HATE the “on the wall” hair dryers?)  The shower is small and the shower head was located for people of below average height, but the hot water was plentiful and the beds were comfortable.P1030126

The location is fantastic.  Even the elk agree–They would hang out right under the hotel windows.

The park rangers put up orange cones to remind the visitors that the elk are wild animals, and they should keep their distance.  Not everyone heeds the warning, and some visitors have gotten injured because they got too close.

I also loved the photos in our room that depicted the early days of the park.

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You can’t sit on these terraces any more.  They are way too delicate and the ground is unstable/

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It used to take DAYS to get through the park.  The coaches averaged 6 miles per hour and there WERE stage coach robberies, back then, just like in those Saturday morning westerns of long ago.

Tip #5  Getting Around the Camp
We rented our car from Enterprise, which was one of three vendors that are on site at the airport.  Other car companies are located in Jackson Hole, about 15 minutes away.  Although renting from an airport based company increased our cost slightly, because of airport taxes, we thought it was worth the convenience, especially because we had an early morning flight home.  Service was good, it was easy, and they upgraded us to the BIGGEST SUV I had ever seen in my life.  (Our son picked up the car, it was not chosen by this Prius driver!)  Presumably the other car companies offer shuttle service, but we didn’t see any while we were at the airport, so perhaps you need to call into town for that service.

So, that’s all I’ve got for the preparation phase.  Next post will be about tours, dining and the actual park experiences

As I mentioned in my opening, this was our first trip to the area, so this Yellowstone newbie welcomes comments from any and all who have different hints/experiences/observations to share.  Talk to us!